“God walks the dark hills, the ways, the byways; He walks through the billows of life’s troubled sea.” —Audra Czarnikow
The Lehkwaddie River enters Lehkwaddie Bay at Alders Point, a large, triangularly shaped piece of land that juts out into the sea. It is an excellent place for swimming. Just off the tip, the warmer river water mixes with the frigid bay water, lessening the cold water’s sting. Islands northeast of the mainland break up the heavy ocean swells so that by the time they draw near the shore, a skilled swimmer can navigate them with relative ease. At high tide, the water rises several feet above the stony beach, providing ample water depth and freedom of movement for swimming.
Alders Point is ten miles from the town of Anderston. To reach it, one takes the road from Anderston in the direction of Steven’s Hill. About eight miles from Anderston is Nahcohbeq Bog, the lowest point along the way. Here the road often looks new, for it is frequently rebuilt because of erosion created by flooding in fall and damage caused by severe storms in winter. From the bog, the road rises steadily to the crest of a hill. The main route, curving to the left, continues inland to Steven’s Hill, thirteen miles farther on. To go to the point, one turns right at the crest onto Alders Point Road and follows the road, which winds its way slowly downhill for two miles to the bay.
There are not many houses on the road; most of the ones there are located closer to the main road than to the beach, a matter of convenience year-round and of safety in winter. Except in summer, the houses are usually uninhabited. In season, wildflowers appear at regular intervals, banks of fireweed, Queen Anne’s lace, and purple violets among them. About halfway to the beach, on the left, is a large, abandoned farmhouse with a detached barn, remnants of a failed attempt at an apple orchard in the 1850s. A meadow lies directly across from the farmhouse. Birds nest in the trees along its edges and can be heard calling to one another in the early morning, and just before sunset. The last quarter mile is unpaved. Where the pavement ends, trees yield to alders and thickets of wild raspberries. From here one can see the expanse of the bay lying outstretched before him. The road terminates at several large pieces of driftwood at the beach’s high-water mark, forming a natural barrier between the land and the sea.
Although the beach at Alders Point is a tempting place to swim, not many people do. Even though the river warms the bay water where the two meet, most swimmers still find the water too cold for comfort. There are no signs to the beach. It is not located along major traffic routes. There is no sand, only rocks and sea bottom. There are no picnic tables or artificial shelters. For serious-minded swimmers though, these are far from being reasons not to swim at Alders Point and instead are part of what makes it a perfect place to swim. In addition, for these swimmers, the very coldness of the water, the remote location, the pastel colors of the surrounding hills and sky, the varied shapes of the rocks framing the shore, the rhythmic movement of the water, and the sound of the waves on the beach—all of these things, all of them together—make swimming at Alders Point irresistible.
Except for two years spent in the army, Michael Taylor had swum the bay off Alders Point every summer for over twenty-five years. So it was that this morning he looked forward to the walk from Anderston, and to his swim. He had risen early. High tide was at eleven-seventeen. It would take him between three and three-and-a-half hours to walk to Alders Point. He ate a good breakfast, put some bottled water in his backpack, added sunblock, a towel, and some underclothes to put on after his swim. He wore his swimming trunks under his jeans and didn’t tuck his shirt in. Although the walk to Alders Point was not particularly arduous, it was long and the road’s ups and downs tended to produce a healthy sweat. Keeping his shirt out kept him cooler. He wore good walking shoes and a broad-brimmed hat. Before leaving, he checked himself one last time, then placed a note on the kitchen table. He closed the door quietly behind him.
For Michael, the beginning of the walk to Alders Point was its least interesting part. He started on Anderston’s main street, which ran along the waterfront past the town hall and several small shops. At City Park, he followed the road to the right. Soon, the town’s major landmark, a large Victorian hotel built near the end of the nineteenth century, could be seen rising on the right behind several groups of trees and rows of brightly colored houses. Most of the houses were small and well kept, with fresh cut lawns and neatly arranged flower beds. Just before the road turned to the left, he stopped in front of a two-story white wooden house surrounded by an iron fence. He looked at it for several moments, most of the time focusing his attention on a room at the top left corner of the house. He closed his eyes.
The two thin beams of the car’s headlights shone on the night water. The air was cold, so cold he couldn’t stop shivering.
He opened his eyes, took a deep breath, and resumed his walk. Soon he reached the edge of town. He could feel his spirit lifting. He always felt better as the town receded behind him. Several years ago, he had tried to figure out why and concluded that it was happiness resulting from leaving so many artificial, complicated things behind him, and of having so many natural, simple things in front of him. Right outside the town’s limits, the road makes a sweeping curve to the right. About halfway through the curve, Michael noticed a man sitting on a rock under some trees on the side of the road. He had taken his shoes off and placed them beside him on the rock. A worn backpack sat on the ground in front of him. Michael thought about crossing over to the other side of the road, but it was too late; the man had seen him.
“Good morning,” the man said as Michael drew near.
Not slowing his pace, but turning his head slightly in the man’s direction, Michael nodded. “Good morning.”
“Where’re you headed?” the man asked.
Michael stopped and turned to face the man, who was putting on his shoes. “Alders Point,” he replied.
“Is that south?” the man asked.
“South? Well, this road first runs west to Alders Point, but there it turns inland and heads south to Steven’s Hill.”
“South. Good. Mind if I join you?”
Michael did mind but said no, that he didn’t.
The man finished putting on his shoes, picked up his bag and slung it over one shoulder. He walked up to Michael and put his hand out. “Brooks,” he said. “Elijah Brooks.”
Michael shook the man’s hand. It was hard and calloused, his grip firm. “Michael Taylor,” he said, and started walking again.
The man fell into step beside him. They walked a considerable distance in silence, neither man seeming to feel a need or desire to talk. From time to time, Michael would steal a glance at the man. He noticed that his clothes were worn, patched in places but clean, and his skin darkly tanned. He walked steadily and seemed easily able to keep Michael’s pace.
It was Michael who first broke the silence. “At the top of this next hill,” he said, “there is a good view of the bay if you’d like to take a look.”
“I would,” the man said.
At the top of the hill, they walked a short distance off the road to a small clearing and looked out at the bay. “Beautiful,” the man said. “I can never get enough of this.”
Michael smiled. “Me neither.” They stood in silence for a few minutes, enjoying the view. Michael noticed a mass of dark clouds forming in the north. “Looks like we may be in for some rain,” he said.
“Fine by me. As they say, it’s only water.”
They returned to the road and resumed their walk. The road had many dips and turns. The bay was always on their right. Most of the time at least part of it was visible, but sometimes the view would be obscured either because the road had been cut through stone, which acted as a wall, or because large groups of trees stood between the road and the water. Periodically they would pass a cottage or cabin, most of them unfinished. There would be a lone wall, for instance, projecting from one side of a house, or the roof would be covered with tar paper. Piles of bricks or wood were stacked in the yard. The mailboxes, which stood next to the road in a fascinating variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and complexity, were often the only completed structures.
The sky grew overcast. Michael could see a line of dark gray clouds low on the horizon in front of him, broad vertical bands connecting the clouds and the earth. Rain. It didn’t worry him though. He saw no lightning. He had often swum in the rain. It had its own sense of beauty. Sometimes, when it was raining, the air would feel colder than the sea and going under the water a pleasure.
“I know what you need,” she said.
“And what would that be?”
“A night swim.”
“You’re crazy. You know that? Do you have any idea how cold that water is?”
“You’re always telling me that once you’re in it, it’s warmer than the air.”
After a while, the man said, “I spend a lot of time on the road by myself. It’s not often that I have an opportunity to talk much with others, to discuss things, you know. I read a lot. Sometimes my head feels so full of ideas I think it might burst if I don’t let any of them out. Would you mind if we talked a little?”
“No, I don’t mind,” Michael said. “Sorry for being so quiet. What would you like to talk about?”
“Oh, there are a lot of things,” the man said. “But I’ll pick just one, something I read recently. It really struck me. I don’t remember now where I read it. It might have been in something by a Japanese writer.”
“You read Japanese writers?” Michael asked, trying not to sound surprised.
“A lot. I like them, especially the modern ones. Their vision is so clear, their style so simple, elegant you might say. It comes across even in English, but it’s more evident in Japanese, of course. Anyway, what struck me was this statement: Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
“It certainly sounds Japanese,” Michael said. “Or Buddhist maybe.”
“It does, doesn’t it? I’ve thought a lot about it. What do you think it means?”
Michael thought for a few moments. “Well, maybe it’s saying something simple, that while we can’t avoid pain in life, we don’t have to suffer; we can always make an exit.”
“Yes. A man can always take his own life, end his suffering.”
The man didn’t say anything.
“What do you think?” Michael asked.
“Well…I think that what you said is one way of understanding it. In the end, though, only the calculus changes.”
“What do you mean?”
The man paused before answering. “My father died when I was thirteen,” he said. “He died at home. My mom, my uncle, and I were with him when he died. He had been ill for many years. The last few months were very difficult. My uncle, I guess trying to say something to make Mom and me feel better, said that at last dad’s suffering was over, that he was finally at peace. My mom looked at him—I still remember that look—and said, ‘Yes, his suffering is over, but mine and Elijah’s just got bigger.’ Ever since then, I’ve had this idea that the amount of suffering in the world is fixed somehow. It doesn’t increase or decrease. It merely moves around. The calculus changes. Sometimes I call it the law of the conservation of suffering.”
“Did you ask…?”
“Yeah. They said no.”
“I don’t, Michael. It’s not fair. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“Yes, I did. I did everything wrong.”
“So,” the man continued, “I think there are two ways to understand the saying. One is the way you did. The other one is this: While we can’t always control what happens to us, we can control what we think about it. I couldn’t stop my dad’s dying, for instance. It was inevitable. My uncle gave me a way to think about my suffering though. It took me a while to understand it, to fully appreciate it, but when I did, it helped me. Once I understood it, then whenever I started feeling sorry for myself, I would remember that I loved my dad and that he wasn’t suffering anymore. I was; he wasn’t. The calculus had changed, but because I loved him, I didn’t mind. Thinking about it in this way helped me carry what I call my share—my share of suffering.”
Michael and the man had reached Nahcohbeq Bog. They began the climb to the top of the hill. They walked in silence. At the top, they stopped.
“Well,” Michael said. “This is where I leave you. Stay on this main road. It’ll take you south to Steven’s Hill.”
“Thanks,” the man said.
“Mr. Brooks,” Michael said, extending his hand. “I enjoyed our conversation.”
“Likewise,” the man said, shaking Michael’s hand. “Likewise.”
Michael watched the man as he walked away. Right before he dropped out of sight, he saw the man’s hand in the air, waving.
Michael turned and began to walk down Alders Point Road. He passed a couple of houses near the main road, both of them vacant. A third house had a car in front. A man and woman were loading things into it. A young boy was playing with a small dog. As Michael passed, the dog looked at him briefly, wagged its tail, then went back to playing with the boy. It began to rain. At first, the rain was light but soon turned into a heavy downpour. He remembered the old barn was not far ahead and quickened his pace. He reached the farmhouse and stepped off the road and into the barn. It was in a bad state of repair. People sometimes used it to store things and they fixed it in places only as needed. He spotted an old wooden chair next to one of the stalls. He sat down. He could hear the rain against the barn’s tin roof. He looked up. There were holes in places in the roof where the rain leaked through. It dripped onto the dirt floor of the barn, stirring up the smell of old hay and the scent of farm animals long gone. He closed his eyes.
“Are you happy?”
“Of course I’m happy. Why do you ask?”
She turned on her side and faced him. She placed a hand on his chest. “Because you don’t sound like it.”
He looked at her. “Feeling guilty?”
He started laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“There’s something incredibly beautiful about a girl with straw in her hair.”
He stood up and walked to the barn door. Puddles had formed in the yard. It was still raining but was much lighter now. He left the barn and walked back to the road. How he loved rain, he thought.
At a slight bend in the road, he passed the last house before the beach. Years ago, a Swedish couple with children had remodeled an old stone house that had been built there early in the previous century. They expanded it to fit the needs of their growing family. They had come originally to farm to return to the land, they said. In time, however, the man, a good carpenter, found it easier to do carpentry work than till the soil. In the end, they did little farming. They had tended a small vegetable garden and kept a few chickens and goats. The house stood empty now.
A half-mile farther on he came to the end of the paved part of the road. He stopped, looked out, and took several deep breaths. The rain had devolved into a mist, and thin clouds of fog floated above the water, obscuring the view of the bay. Good swimming weather, he thought.
“I can’t see you. Where are you?”
“Tell me where you are.”
On the beach, he sat down on a large piece of driftwood. He took off his clothes, folded them neatly, removed his shoes and hat, and stored everything on a nearby rock. He set his backpack on top of his clothes.
The tide was perfect. It had risen to just below the high water mark. He didn’t have to walk far on the rocky beach to reach the water. He entered it slowly. It would take him several minutes to get in entirely. This was the most painful part of the ritual. He was cold and began shivering. His teeth chattered. He bent over, took two handfuls of the freezing bay water and rubbed them vigorously over his upper body. He kept inching his way forward, deeper into the water, past his knees, up to his waist, his mid-chest, his shoulders. He took a deep breath, went under the water, and pushed himself forward off the bottom, out into the bay. He surfaced, took his bearings, and then turned over onto his back. He gazed at the gray and black clouds drifting in the sky above the bay. He loved the water. His head rested on it like a child’s head lying on its mother’s lap. His ears were half submerged, the water splashing against the sides of his face. He could taste the salt. He heard gulls. They seemed close to him, their screeching sounds piercing the muffling effect of the water.
He turned over and began to swim in the direction of one of the small islands not far from shore. He remembered the first time he had swum all the way to the island. He was sixteen. About halfway there he had heard loud popping sounds. He had stopped swimming and began treading water. Looking back toward the shore, he had seen a man sitting in a rowboat in a weir near the mouth of the river shooting seals. Later, the man told Michael that he was “protecting his livelihood,” that the seals had been raiding the salmon trapped in his weir. For weeks afterward Michael had dreamt of the lifeless black bodies of the seals floating on the surface of the water outside the weir.
He swam slowly, reveling in the feel of his body’s movement through the water. At intervals, he would dive beneath the surface, keeping his eyes open so that the water could touch all of him. A feeling consisting of both fear and joy came over him as he moved out into the deeper part of the bay. He always found the exposure of his pale body to what lay under the water, to what he could not see, stimulating. It quickened his senses, made him feel alive. What strange and primitive creatures swam there beneath him, or walked sideways on the bottom of the bay, looking up at his pale white body kicking and moving above them? I am one of them he would tell himself, nothing more, nothing less. This exposure, it seemed to him, required a kind of courage—an acceptance of unknown danger—and of vulnerability. It reminded him of how one feels standing near the edge of a high cliff, imagining what it would be like to fall, to slip effortlessly through the air, unencumbered, to leave the earth.
The river entered the bay to Michael’s left. His years of swimming in the bay had taught him what to expect. First, about halfway to the island, there would be a slight warming of the water, modest, hardly noticeable, but real; it would be accompanied by a pushing from the left, gentle at first, but growing more forceful as he continued to swim across it. It was the current created by the river flowing into the bay. It could push a weak or unresisting swimmer away from the island, out in the direction of the open sea. The current ran northeast, past a beach on the tip of Tannen’s Island, the last stop in the bay before the sea.
“Michael. Michael. Wake up.”
“They found her, on Tannen’s…I’m sorry.”
He slipped beneath the water. This time he kept his eyes closed. Darkness. Complete darkness. What would it be like, he wondered? What would it be like not to come up, not to rise again to the surface? What would it be like to stay under the water forever, to allow it to hold him, to caress him, to carry him away, to wash everything out to the deep dark sea? What would it be like to stop feeling?
Something struck his right side, bumping him hard, forcing the air out of his lungs, pushing him up to the surface. His head rose out of the water; he gasped for air, instinctively treading water. He took several shallow breaths in rapid succession. Then he saw it, ten yards in front of him, the large round whiskered head of a harbor seal, and immediately behind her, a smaller head, a seal pup. He wanted to laugh and would have if he could, but he didn’t have enough air, and his side hurt too much. He heard a noise behind him. Confused, at first he didn’t recognize it. He turned and looked in the direction of the shore. She was there, standing there alone, waving at him, and calling his name. He swam to her.
“I got your note,” she said. “I waited a long time, but when you didn’t show up, I got worried. It’s so unlike you to be late. Then I thought you might be swimming here. It seems like I guessed right.”
It started to rain again.
“I brought us lunch,” she said. “We can eat it in the car if you like, but there’s also a neat-looking barn up the road if you prefer.”
“The car’s fine,” he said. “Let me get my things.”
“Oops,” she said when they were in the car. “Our lunch is in the trunk.”
“I’ll get it,” he said. “I’m already wet.”
When he returned, she said, “Michael, I’m sorry, but I need to ask you something.”
“Are you happy?”
He turned towards her. “Why do you ask?”
“It’s just a feeling. Sometimes I think…”
He placed his fingers on her lips and shook his head.
They ate their lunch in silence, listening to the rain falling on the car.
When they finished, he said, “What about you?”
“Yeah. Are you happy?”
“I am,” she said.
He was quiet.
“My turn,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
Michael looked out the car’s front window at the rain splashing on the surface of the bay. “Because I love you,” he said. “It’s important to me.”
He started the car and turned it around.
As they started up the road, he said, “Let me tell you about a seal I just met.”
Gershon Ben-Avraham earned an MA in philosophy (aesthetics) from Temple University, where he studied with the American philosopher of art Monroe Beardsley. He lives in Be’er Sheva, Israel. His fiction and poetry frequently explore the conflicting moral issues of the modern world from a religious perspective. His fiction has appeared in Big Muddy, Broad River Review, Gravel: A Literary Journal, Image: Art, Faith, Mystery, and other print and online journals.